Lately I have been reading a book by a Harvard researcher, CounterClockwise: Mindful health and the Power of Possibility. Dr. Ellen Langer studies aging, and how our beliefs about aging contribute to the physical experiences we attribute to aging – vision loss, stiffness, memory fuzziness among others.

One aspect of her work has caught my attention as I think of my patients and the CreakyJoints community – the effect of variability. Dr. Langer contrasts the tension between stability and variability. She notes that as humans we crave things being stable and unchanging. Once we get to a certain state we don’t want it to be different. This is as true with our health as with our finances. We don’t like or welcome constant change. Another consequence of this preference for stable states is that we tend to judge ourselves and others by stable categories. You are either sick or well.  You are young or old. Rich or poor. You have RA or you don’t. These categories work for research studies, but they don’t translate as well in real life.

 Dr. Langer demonstrates in her studies that thinking of one’s self in categories has a detrimental effect on overall health.

She writes, “Consider what life would be like if we gave up the idea of healthy or  sick – zero minus one – and replaced it with the idea of multiple continua. One minute, for example, we might score 60% on one health dimension, 30 % on another and perhaps 85% on yet a third. How would that change our lived experience? First, we could still feel empowered because we would recognize that much of our body is still working just fine. Second, it is easier to try to “fix” a smaller problem (60 percent healthy) than a big one ( 100 percent sick). Third we would have many more people to whom we might compare ourselves and thereby potentially find more solutions to our health. If you have only 30 percent of the problem and have found a solution, maybe it could work for me at 60 percent. That’s a lot easier to imagine than in the all-or-none world in which we currently find ourselves.” ( p.79-80).

A continuum of health dimensions instead of all-or-none. What would you like to pay attention to in your own health evaluation?

Dr. Langer stresses a mindful attention to our own bodies and their particular symptoms, strengths and reactions. She advocates paying mindful attention to how we feel – and trusting our own feelings, noticing our well-functioning body parts as well as the more problematic ones, and factoring that into an ongoing assessment.

Then your experience of your illness won’t look like mine – and may not look like anyone else’s. My description of my body won’t look like another’s – and in that variability is our strength and potential.

In the next weeks I will write more about how she suggests we practice this mindful attention, and how we might apply it to the life of living with chronic illness. If you run across her book, take a look and let me know what you think and how it applies to your life.